I had 2 things on my must do list for the few days I had in Bangkok; see the iconic buddhist temples and to go for a ride on an elephant. I had done the temples, now it was time to travel 3 hours north of Bangkok out into the countryside to see the elephants at the Khao Yai National Park.
First stop about an hour into our trip was the local market at Nakhorn Nayok. I had concerns that this was going to be a hard sell gem store and souvenir hard sell tourists are warned about but I needn't have worried. It wasn't that sort of market, instead it was filled with fresh local produce (much of which was still moving!) and they were buying our lunch.
Jack Fruit being prepared at Nakhorn Na Yok Market
Fresh Shellfish on sale at Nakhon Na Yok Market
As on other stalls the fish in these buckets moved and were very much still alive!
Yes I think that is Frogs on sale at the front!
Hot spices anyone?
After an educational and entertaining wander around the market we went to a local farm for a ride in an ox cart. It was a sedantry bone shaking ride and we had to wear thai farmer straw hats similar to those I had seen in the Siam Museum in Bangkok the previous day.
Me on the back of the Ox Cart - in my Thai Farmer's Straw Hat!
View riding an Ox Cart
We than continued on our way towards Khao Yai National Park passing through small villages on the way. Going through one village we had to wait while a local farmer unloaded his Rice Harvester into an adjacent paddy field while in another we stopped and watched a couple of races at the sports day of the local school.
A local farmer unloading a rice harvester into his paddy fields
Water Buffalo grazing beside the road
Sports Day at a local Thai Village School
The race for the finishing line!
We then reached the entrance to the Khao Yai National Park and made our way to the famous waterfall at Haew Narok. It was not as spectacular as it can be when full of water but impressive and an idyllic spot none the less.
Fence to stop the Elephants getting through on the way to the Harew Narok Waterfall
The steps down to the Waterfall
Haew Narok Waterfall
Me by the Haew Narok Waterfall
Chamelon on a tree on the way back from the Waterfall
We then moved deeper into the National Park heading towards a viewpoint over the Forest and soon began to encounter gibbon monkeys along the road.
Our first sight of a Gibbon at the side of the road
The Gibbon seemed unsure if he was happy to see us!
We then encountered a whole troop of Gibbons including some young
A view of the Forest at the Khao Yai National Park
At the viewpoint a few Gibbons took a particular interest in a pair of mopeds
However the highlight and main purpose of the day was to ride an elephant and after a stop for lunch (much of which had been bought earlier in the day by our guide while we were at Nakhorn Nayok Market) we were introduced to a large elephant called Cherry. I was sharing her with a mother and daughter from upstate New York and I initially sat on Cherry's neck, it was a long way down! We then spent three quarters of an hour lumbering through some woods, ducking branches and walking down streams; great fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The mahout gets out of the way as we set off through the forest on Cherry the Elephant
Yep, they initially put me in the driving seat on the back of the elephants head
The elephant sprayed us with a bit of water as we walked through a small stream
Me feeling cool on the back of Cherry the Elephant
Our final view of our two elephants before we began our long drive back to Bangkok
The Margaret River area is the south west toe of Western Australia about 3 hours drive from Perth. I had been there before on my previous visit to my cousins in Perth back in 2002 but definately wanted to go back there again as there was so much to see.
We started by visiting the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse situated at the most south western point in Australia which is where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. After the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and Cape Horn in South America this is one of the most treacherous capes in the world. The lighthouse was built in 1895-96 and is 132 feet (40 metres) high with walls 7 feet (2 metres) thick at its base - and 176 steps we had to climb to reach the top!
Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse
The Lighthouse Lens at Cape Leeuwin
The view of the rest of Australia from Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse
Me at the meeting point of the Indian and Southern Oceans
Next stop moving north was Lake Cave, the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge which is the backbone of the Margaret River Area is peppered with over 100 of them most of which have the most amazing natural cave formations. Lake Cave is considered the prettiest of them with an impressive colapsed cavern entrance known as a doline and its stalactites within reflecting in the stream that flows very slowly through it. From the karri trees growing in the entrance it is estimated the doline colapsed about 700 years ago and inside Lake Cave there is a very unusual cave formation known as as suspended table formed by the flowstone beneath columns being eroded away.
The impressive entrance down into Lake Cave
Stalactites reflecting in the water inside Lake Cave
The suspended table inside Lake Cave
The deepest part of Lake Cave
Day light again! Re-emerging from Lake Cave into its doline
The Boranup Forest above the caves contains an amazing forest of karri and marri trees, driving along the Caves Road that runs along the spine of the area you are aware the trees are tall with similar sized trunks but all of a sudden the trees seem to be 3-5 times taller than they were previously - very belittling! Karri Trees are a very straight trunked hardwood tree with all its branches high up that can grow upto 200 feet (60 metres) high. The most famous karri is the 200 feet high Gloucester Tree near Pemberton about an hour's drive away to the east which is used as a fire lookout tree and can be climbed but I was quite happy keeping my feet on the ground!
The view from the Boranup Lookout across the Karri Tree Forest to the Indian Ocean
Karri Trees line the track as we drive through the Baranup Forest
To give an idea of scale, our car stopped on the track amongst the Karri Trees in the Boranup Forest
Where the Margaret River enters the Indian Ocean is also world famous for its consistent surf and I remember a fun day on the beach there during my previous visit. Since then the shape of the coastline seems to have changed a lot and still shows the scars of a bushfire that ravaged the area a couple of years ago but as we stopped for old times sake we could still make out the surfers practising in the waves on Surfers Point for the annual Pro Surf Competition being held there starting at the weekend.
Surfers practice at Surfers Point, Margaret River
Lifeguard Notice at Margaret River Beach
Surfers encampment at Margaret River in readiness for the Pro-Am Competition the following weekend
Scrubland at Surfers Point recovering from the Bushfire that ravaged the area in 2011
However what Margaret River is famous for more than anything else is for being Western Australia's premier wine region so what else were we to finish our trip to the area but with a tour of a local winery? The winery we chose to visit was the Leeuwin Estate, one of the original wineries in the area when it was identified as an ideal place to grow grapes back in 1972 and which often hosts open concerts for famous entertainers such the London Philamornic and Sting. Our tour was given by a very enthusiastic guide and one of the senior growers and was very interesting and fun - honest I learnt a lot! We then finished off by sampling some of the different vintages before starting our long trek back to Perth.
The entrance to the Leeuwin Estate Winery
The stage all set for the next open air concert at the Leeuwin Estate
Where the grapes arrive from the fields
Wine fermenting in the vats at the Leeuwin Estate
Wine aging in oak barrels in the cellars of the Leeuwin Estate
Of course no tour of a winery would be complete without some wine tasting!
Auckland is built on a narrow istmus where you can walk from the east to west coast in about 4 hours. It is also pitted with about 50 volcanic cones and craters and half the city seems to spend their free time jogging up and down them trying to keep fit. The most famous of these are Mount Eden (Auckland's highest volcanic cone) and One Tree Hill of U2 Joshua Tree fame and whose tree was chopped down by a maori activist in 2000.
One Tree Hill - minus the famous tree on its summit chopped down in 2000
One Tree Hill from Mount Eden
Auckland including the Harbour Bridge and Skytower from Mount Eden
The summit of Mount Eden at sunset
In my opinion however the cone with the best view of Auckland is Mount Victoria on the North Shore of the harbour above the naval base at Devonport. On top of it is Fort Victoria and its disappearing gun built in 1899 in response to the threat of Russian expansionism in the Pacific. Offshore and dominating the view out to sea is Rangitoto, the largest and youngest of Auckland's volcanoes which last erupted about 600 years ago.
The disappearing gun at Fort Victoria overlooking Auckland Harbour
The spectacular view of Auckland Harbour from Mount Victoria
The Fossil Forest exposed on Takupuna Beach in front of Rangitoto, Auckland's largest and youngest volcano
Just like Freemantle when Australia won the America's Cup in 1984, Auckland's harbour side attracted a lot of investment and got a major revamp after New Zealand won the Cup in 1995 and 2000. Several multi-millionaires have their luxury yachts in the Viaduct Harbour (one 5 star hotel even offers them berths!) and the New Zealand and Italian America's Cup Teams are still based here.
New Zealand's 1995 America's Cup winning yacht NZL32 "Black Magic" in the NZ Maritime Museum
The luxury yacht Ulysses moored in Auckland's Viaduct Basin
The Headquarters of the New Zealand America's Cup Team
The Italian America's Cup Team are also based in Auckland
Thousands of yachts are moored in the Marina and demand for berths is so high that one company even offers multi-storey berths promising to have a customer's boat in the water within an hour of receiving a phone call. Across the mouth of the Viaduct Basin is the $3.7 million Wynyard Footbridge which opens to let boats through and is popular with tourists and cyclists.
The Skytower viewed behind a forest of yacht masts in Westhaven Marina
Whatever next? A Multi Storey Boat Park down on the waterside in Auckland
The Wynyard Footbridge across the Viaduct Harbour
The Wynyard Footbridge is raised to let a private yacht out to sea
Also by the Viaduct Harbour is New Zealand's Maritime Museum which in addition to galleries on the arrival of the Polynesians, early pioneers, immigrants and the America's Cup also has twice daily sailings around the harbour in the Ted Ashby, a modern reconstruction of ketch-rigged deck scow typical of those used to transport cargo around New Zealand's coasts 1870-1920.
Hoisting the Sail aboard the Ted Ashby in Waitemata Harbour off Auckland
View of Auckland from the Waitemata Harbour
While sailing on the Ted Ashby we sailed under the Auckland Harbour Bridge completed in 1959. Originally it only had 4 lanes which was very quickly found to be inadequate and by 1969 a Japanese construction company had been engaged to add a further 4 lanes which ever since have been affectionately known as the Nippon Clip-ons. It is also possible to do a bungy jump from a bungy pod close to the southern pier of the bridge; we narrowly missed catching someone jumping as we passed underneath!
Me approaching Auckland Harbour Bridge aboard the Ted Ashby
The bungy pod close to the south pier that they jump from underneath the Auckland Harbour Bridge
Returning to port aboard the Ted Ashby off Auckland
Not far to the west of Auckland is the 70 square miles of the Waitakere Regional Park with its visitor centre at Arakati with views of Manukau Harbour, Auckland's second harbour facing west connected to the Tasman Sea.
The Arataki Visitor's Centre in the Waitakere Regional Park
View across to the West Coast and Manukau Harbour from Arataki
Me in a picture frame of the view of Manukau Harbour from Arataki
The Park was formed in 1940 to protect the remaining local NZ bush and allow what had already been lost to regenerate. This includes the Kauri Tree (which can live for 2000+ years), Rata Tree (which start as vines growing up other trees) and New Zealand's national emblem the Silver Fern. At Karekare there is a waterfall in a glade that was used for scenes in the Oscar winning film "The Piano".
Rata Tree near Piha in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
Karekare Waterfall in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
Close up of the Karekare Waterfall and the beach used in the film "The Piano"
Our final stop was Piha, famous for its iconic vista over the beach and Lion Rock. Beaches on New Zealand's west coast facing the Tasman Sea have iron rich black sand originating from volcanic dust while those on the east coast facing the Pacific are a more usual sand colour.
Me sat at the Lookout overlooking Piha Beach and Lion's Rock